Label his paintings ‘exceptional’
Los Angeles Herald Examiner
September 26, 1982
Like numerous American and European artists in the past few years, Roger Herman has been described as a “Neoexpressionist”” painter. The German-born artist, who now lives in Los Angeles, is currently having his second one-man exhibition at the Ulrike Kantor Gallery. It is a sizable show (sixteen paintings and four woodcuts) of often sizable work (the largest is a diptych 16 feet in length), so the gallery also has opened a temporary annex a few doors away. Regardless of what one wishes to choose as a label for the artists, the paintings are exceptional.
Herman’s is not an authentic Expressionism, although his paintings are loaded with Expressionist signs. Sex, death, and power, for instance, are recurrent subjects–the first in two paintings of sexual intercourse between faceless participants, as well as in several versions of three female figures whose ancestry lies in classical renditions of the three graces; the second a large painting of a human skull called Mexican Painting and in two versions of French Revolutionary hero Jean Marat, lying slain in his bathtub; and the third in a variety of forms. Power is implicit in a looming image of a classical building, titled Wall Street; in the pictures of the politically motivated assassination of Marat; in the familial double portrait of the artist’s parents (they are seen from below so that they become gargantuan in a manner reminiscent of Socialist-Realist depictions of political leaders or of monumentalized workers); and in a painting and several woodcuts of Indians with flared Mohawk haircuts, the romantic vision of the “noble savage” of the American wilderness.
Expressionism’s common appropriation of a wide array of artistic traditions is evident as well. Two large landscape paintings with nearly identical images of mountains recall Cézanne’s extensive series of Mont St. Victoire pictures, here swelled to gigantic scale in a massive engorgement of paint. Further, the similarities between the two panels brings to mind Robert Rauschenberg’s Factum I and Factum II, two nearly identical paintings of the 1950s in which the artist mocked the individuality supposedly inherent in Abstract Expressionist art. The two “Marat” paintings reprise the subject of Jacques Louis David’s famous painting of his slain compatriot, while the “three graces” are reminiscent, in style and subject, of paintings by the late Bay Area painter David Park. And Herman’s use of the woodcut (the form of printmaking least popular in the past several decades) cannot help but recall the German Expressionist revival of he technique earlier in this century. Most obviously, Herman’s use of paint is an Expressionist sign. He has a penchant for the acidic and the bilious in his choice of colors and, in a painting like the large Marat, is capable of composing an entire picture in shades of crimson, orange, deep violet and black. And everywhere his paintings are built from thick, gestural slashes of paint and runny dribbles of thin pigment.
But what is odd about these paintings is that their parts are not Expressionist–they are devoid of the direct emotive energy one associates with Expressionism–but are Expressionist signs. They seem strangely filtered, as if seen through a fog. However tradition-minded the image in the large, 16-foot Marat is not taken from the classic painting by David (who, significantly, composed his remarkably touching 1793 painting directly in the presence of he body of his dead friend), but from a scene in Abel Gance’s film Napoleon, in which the writer Antonin Artaud played the murdered revolutionary. The colors of Herman’s painting even give the image something of the filtered look of an infrared photograph. Similarly, his huge painting of his parents transforms these personally significant individuals into public heroic “types.” So overloaded with rhetorical baggage that its use keeps us from fresh direct experience.
What Herman manages to do in the best of these works–the double portrait of his parents, the large Marat, Wall Street, the twin mountains and several of the woodcuts among them–is to load Expressionist sign upon Expressionist type until they can’t be sorted out and all we can see is the painting itself. The specificity and idiosyncrasy of these works is simply to be found within their very physicality and presence on the wall, as well as in the nature of our experience of them.
The sense of history and tradition in Herman’s work is both personal and cultural. Significantly, he emphatically melds them both together: His parents become heroic or cultural) “types,” while the Expressionist brush stoke is drained of autobiographical (or personal) meaning. These reversals are disarming. They result in paintings with a distanced quality, a remoteness not unlike watching your own life pass by on the surface of a television screen. Looking at Herman’s paintings is like watching yourself being watched–you feel connected but separate. They exhibit a genuine poignancy, even a sadness, but it is a sadness one always feels when faced with extraordinary beauty.
“Neoexpressionism” is a deceptive term. Its prefix misleadingly suggests that the operative impulse is revivalist–that Neoexpressionism intends to resuscitate the abandoned search for emotive imagery that lurks deep within us, beyond the reach of conscious control yet harboring true freedom. It suggests, in short, that the search that fueled German painters in the early 1900s and abstract painters in the 1940s is being revived. But to regard Neoexpressionism as such a revival is a mistake. Indeed, to do so would be to accept that an unbridled desire for primal utterance and raw “self-expression” is anything more than the very cliché by which popular culture has come to define the artist and his method. Lust for Life and The Agony and the Ecstasy, to cite two wildly popular pulp-novel biographies (of Van Gogh and Michelangelo, respectively) that were transformed into silver-screen epics, are perhaps paradigms of this pop-culture myth of the artist digging into the purity of his soul in the search for absolute creative freedom. The emotive or “expressionist” force suggested by the very words “lust,” “agony,” and “ecstasy” is, in fact, nothing more that a vernacular variation on the Judeo-Christian tradition of sin, damnation, and redemption. That such a view of self-expression–as supposedly pure and absolutely free–has been so thoroughly embraced by our culture (someone once aptly described self-expression as “a cultural opiate”) is a clear example of the degree to which our very deepest emotions, once thought to be beyond conscious control, are indeed politically and socially inflected.
In fusing the personal and the cultural, and in plainly stating the multitude of historical traditions from which this fusion issues forth, Herman reconnects the emotive to its complex source. What is “new” about his “Neo”–expressionism is the degree to which it reveals that subjectivity –the myth of self-expression and primal emotion as the liberating motive force for art and life–is anything but freely felt.
Label his paintings ‘exceptional’